Safford v Redding (2009)

Savana Redding was a 13 year old girl middle school student. On October 8, 2003 she was called into the Assistant Principal’s office because she had been accused of handing prescription-strength ibuprofen to her classmates. She denied she was handing out pills and let the assistant principal and an administrative assistant search her backpack. When they found nothing the administrative assistant took Redding to the school nurse to search her clothing. Redding was first asked to take off all her outer clothing and still no pills were found so she was asked to pull the elastic from her bra and underwear leaving part of her breasts and pelvic area exposed. This search did not turn up any pills either. Redding’s mom filed a suit against the school district, the assistant principal, the administrative assistant, and the nurse seeking monetary damages for violating her daughter’s Fourth Amendment rights. The federal district court found no constitutional violations. Later the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

The constitutional question here is whether the school officials violated the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure clause when they strip-searched a 13 year old girl without a warrant to look for prescription strength Ibuprofen pills. The Court held that the school officials did violate the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure clause. Souter wrote the majority opinion for the Court. Souter refers back to precedent set in New Jersey v TLO (1985) regarding the Fourth Amendment as it applies to school settings. In TLO the Court recognized that a school setting is different than a setting involving law enforcement officials, thus it requires some modifications to the level of suspicion required to justify a search. In the present case the Court applied a standard of reasonable suspicion to determine the legality of a school administrator’s search of a student. The Court held that a school search is permissible when “the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction (469).”

Souter concludes that the search was excessively intrusive. The searches of her backpack and outer clothing were not excessively intrusive. The Court does think, however, that asking her to pull and wiggle her bra and stretch the elastic from her underwear were excessively intrusive because as a 13 year old girl Savana had the reasonable expectation of privacy against a search of that nature. Justice Souter continues that a strip-search is not outlawed but such a search requires a suspicion that it will pay off. In this case it didn’t because the school officials knew what the pills were and the limited effects they had before they conducted the search. The school officials did not have sufficient information that indicated the pills posed a great danger to students nor did they have enough suspicion that Savana hid the pills in her undergarments.

Justice Thomas concurs in part in the judgement and dissents in part. Thomas begins by agreeing with the majority that school officials had reasonable suspicion to look in her backpack and outer clothing but argues the Court did not provide evidence that a more extensive search was unreasonable. Justice Thomas’ main argument in the dissent is that the Court does not have the authority to second-guess school policies; locally elected representatives have that authority. But he continues to say that even if the Court did have authority to review school policies the majority’s assessment of the district’s policy is flawed. The school rule prohibiting distributing or possessing prescription drugs is consistent with criminal code. Thomas points out that the school has the responsibility of protecting its students and even though Ibuprofen is safe for most people, there is a possibility a student will take the pill who has adverse reactions. The school’s policy prohibited drugs so it was justifiable for school officials to conduct a search “extending to any area where small pills could be concealed..” if they had reasonable suspicion she violated the policy.

I agree with Justice Souter’s opinion that the search was unconstitutional because it was excessively intrusive given Savana’s age and sex, and the nature of the drugs in question. Ibuprofen is not a particularly dangerous drug. In his dissent Justice Thomas points out that it is possible a student could have a bad reaction to Ibuprofen. But most people have taken Ibuprofen at one point so a student would know not to take Savana’s pills if they have a bad reaction or are allergic to Ibuprofen. I think the chances of a student responding negatively to prescription-strength Ibuprofen are not high enough to warrant a strip search, especially of a 13 year old girl because as Souter wrote, it is humiliating and embarrassing to be asked to strip and expose parts of your body. Young girls are taught that certain parts of their bodies are private. They have a different expectation when they undress at a doctor’s appointment because it is necessary for to their well-being or in a gym locker room because they don’t expect all eyes to be on them. Thomas argues that it would be reasonable for school officials to check any area where small pills could be concealed regardless of the nature of the pills. It is easy for Thomas to say that because he has never been a 13 year old girl. At 13 her body is going through some changes that she isn’t necessarily comfortable with. Because the pills did not pose a significant danger to other students I don’t think it was justifiable for the school to subject Savana to the humiliation, embarrassment, and discomfort that accompanies undressing and exposing the body to adults.

I think the debate on the intrusiveness of the search brings up several questions. Would the Court have decided differently if the search had been done on a male student? Would it matter if a search was done on a male student by a female nurse? Do males have different expectations of privacy than do females? At what age would a strip search not be considered excessively intrusive? Do you think Thomas is right that the Court’s decision would encourage students to hide contraband in their undergarments?

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